Universities Australia Media | 15 April 2013
Transcript of interview with Fran Kelly ABC Radio National Breakfast
FRAN KELLY: Well the cuts to the tertiary education sector have infuriated the federal Independents, and in a moment we’ll hear from one of those, Rob Oakeshott. But first to Glyn Davis, the chair of Universities Australia, and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. Glyn Davis, welcome back to Breakfast.
GLYN DAVIS: Thank you.
KELLY: Well, as we heard there, the Prime Minister says this isn’t a cut, but it is a quote, moderation of growth. Every university still gets more money. That’s true, isn’t it? University funding has grown dramatically under the Gillard Government, or under the Labor Government rather?
DAVIS: University funding started to grow in 2004, and then has picked up dramatically since 2007. There are two measures that I think matter, one is volume and the other is quality. And the Government’s ambition has been to get 40 per cent of Australians under 25 into universities, so there’s been a massive expansion in volume.
The efficiency dividends announced don’t go to volume, they go to quality. They actually cut the amount of money available to support each student in the system, about $901.3 million out of the system over the next four years.
KELLY: So if you looked at that across the numbers of students, what would that be per capita in terms of the – a decrease in the amount of money available per student?
DAVIS: It means, in very approximate terms, what is currently $9400 becomes $9200 to support each student on average. Of course the particular amount for a student varies dramatically depending on whether they’re doing commerce and arts, or medicine and law. But the – on average it’ll be about a $200 reduction per student.
KELLY: I want to come to the impact of that on quality, but volume and quality are linked aren’t they? The uncapping of places which this Federal Government also trumpets as one of its, kind of, offerings to the university sector, allowing the unis to take on more students, means a greater potential for revenue doesn’t it?
DAVIS: Well it doesn’t because student – the amount of student contribution and the government subsidies are both fixed, so as volume rises, overall revenue rises and that’s the figure the Prime Minister is talking about. But the capacity to, say, improve the quality of the experience for an individual student is not affected by volume. Quality and volume are linked, but you can support one and not the other.
KELLY: Okay so, basically, in a sense you’re being asked to do more with less, ten more students with less money. What does it mean in real terms in terms of the quality of the experience as you put it there? A cut per student, in effect, from $9400 to $9200. Doesn’t sound like much, what impact will that have on the experience?
DAVIS: No it doesn’t sound like much, and two per cent is two per cent. Someone else once said the numbers are the numbers. But what it does mean is that the things that student support fund – so, the amount of contact hours, the amount of student counselling, the hours in the library, stock in the laboratories, all of the things that are standard parts of the operation of all universities just get shaved, all of them have to be reduced around two per cent to make this work, and to keep universities which work on very, very fine margins still in the black, because no university can afford to run deficits. So it does mean a reduction in all of the services provided, but by that amount, by around two per cent.
KELLY: Most of us probably don’t understand the fine margins that the universities, like Uni of Melbourne where you work. A cut of two per cent and then one and a quarter per cent over two years, and then that’s the end of this efficiency dividend, could that be managed, rather than cutting back on stock in the labs or student councillors, by putting on hold capital works programs for two years, or things like that? I mean are there less harmful ways to manage this that you and others will be recommending?
DAVIS: Around the country this morning, university leaderships will be sitting down and trying to work through exactly those questions. Nobody wants to cut student services and nobody wants to put employment at risk. So, the first question is what can we do for other things, capital works and other expenses?
But universities also have this really important role out into the community, it’s not just the people we employ, it’s the more than hundred thousand Australians whose income relies on the university sector, even if they don’t know it, because they’re running cafes and accommodation, and clothes shops, and all the things that actually benefit from the expenditure that university students, and particularly international students bring into the country. So it’s not just the effects on campus, it’s the effects off campus.
I don’t want to overstate the implications of this, this does come at the end of a very substantial period of growth in income, but it does mean, combined with the cuts to – substantial cuts to research at the end of last year – October last year, announced by Treasurer Wayne Swan, that cumulatively the effect on universities is significant, and every university will have to make savings in order to stay, sort of, viable and productive. And that’s a question of values, is that the sort of country we want to be? Is that the national priority?
The Prime Minister said at the start of her interview, budgets are about choice, you show what you value for the choices you make and that’s exactly right. But it’s as true about universities as it is of schooling.
KELLY: In terms of values though, let me ask you as an Australian committed to education, working in the higher education system, you know, are you committed, along with the Prime Minister and most Australians I would think, to the notion of every Australian school student having equal access to education, equal standard of education? And is there a case sometimes for a fair trade-off?
DAVIS: I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of university sector, and certainly I strongly support the idea that schools should be funded to international standards and we should have first-class schools available to every student, public or private. And I don’t think anybody would resile from that, that’s clearly an important national objective. The interesting question is, is that logically linked to university funding? And the Prime Minister and Minister of Education have chosen to make that link, they have expressly joined cuts to universities to greater expenditure on schools. Again, a political debate rather than a necessary logical or budget debate.
DAVIS: I don’t see these two things as inherently linked, but the Government has chosen to link them and made that a statement of values, and the electorate will have to judge that as they do.
KELLY: We’re speaking with Glyn Davis, chair of Universities Australia, and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. Glyn Davis, one of the other measures where the Government’s finding money from the tertiary education sector to help fund the school changes is the start-up scholarships.
KELLY: The change to this – would they be now putting those start-up scholarships into HECS, which would give the Government a significant saving of over a billion dollars. Needy students who are the ones eligible for these scholarships will still get the cash upfront, but it will go into their HECS payments, so they’ll pay it off over the course of their working life. Is that a smart cut in your view?
DAVIS: It’s one that – I’m about to get cut off by an emergency evacuation of the building I’m in. More accurately a testing of the system, so an alarm is about to go off which will probably make it impossible for me to answer. So, perhaps, at that stage I’d better close it, and happy to come back when the alarm is gone. Sorry about that.
KELLY: Alright Glyn Davis we’ll talk to you again about this, thank you very much for joining us.
DAVIS: Thank you, bye.
KELLY: As I said Glyn Davis is chair of Universities Australia.